My Ten-Acre Wilderness: A Misfit Girl's Quest for Home

By Jodi Auborn

Biography & memoir, Environment & nature, Religion & spirituality

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62
10 mins

 

Chapter 3. MY TEN-ACRE WILDERNESS

“Are we there yet? How much farther?” I kept asking as I sat between Mom and Dad in the old yellow pickup truck. The ride from Wilton had seemed endless, as the truck strained up and over the winding mountain road to the town of Corinth, just inside the invisible blue line that separated the Adirondack Park from the outside world.

“It’s not far now,” Dad grumbled, an ever-present cigarette between his fingers as he drove with one hand. He had been a long-distance truck driver before I was born, and those years had given him an easy confidence when driving.

“Just a hop, skip, and a jump away!” Mom said, beaming, as we followed the riverside road heading out of Corinth, continuing our journey north.

I frowned as I peered out the windshield at the passing forests and small wooden summer homes that she called “camps.” Just how far is a hop, skip, and jump? I wondered, as we passed through the town of Lake Luzerne and crossed a high bridge over a waterfall far below.

“That’s called Rockwell Falls,” Dad said. “This part of the Hudson River separates Saratoga and Warren County, and Lake Luzerne from Hadley.”

“And Hadley’s where we’ll live?” I asked.

“If this all works out.”

We passed a general store, and then followed a sunny country road that ran alongside some train tracks as the radio played the top country songs of that week in 1986.

****

Dad said the land was only about 20 miles from home, just a half-hour’s drive, but we seemed to be at the very end of the earth as we followed a steep road up a wooded mountain. At last, the wilderness that I dreamed about! The small towns we had passed through seemed a world away when we finally stopped by the side of the road. Nothing surrounded us except the narrow road that continued through miles of woods, and an overgrown trail that headed uphill into the forest.

For some reason, Mom wasn't smiling so much now. “I thought the property would be more level,” she said. “How can we build anything on the side of a mountain?”

The property looked perfect, to me. I knew there were toads in those woods, just waiting for me to catch them! I could tame a raccoon or a squirrel, and keep it as a pet! But best of all, Dad promised me that once the house was built, he’d buy me my very…own…horse!

“Just come and take a look at it,” Dad told her as he pulled onto the trail that he called a logging road. The soft spring leaves brushed against the sides of the truck as we drove into the dark, mysterious woods to our new life.

****

I was in fourth grade when Dad bought those ten acres in Hadley, NY. I felt so proud as I wrote a class composition about our land, about how my hands ended up smelling like forest dirt and the toads I'd caught, and about the time when I heard a mountain lion crashing through the trees! Dad told me it was really just a chipmunk running through the leaves, but of course, I knew better.

Over the winter, thick booklets began to arrive in the mail back home, and I liked to sit on the floor and look at them as Mom and Dad discussed each one. They came from different log home companies and were filled with black-and-white drawings of houses and their floor plans. My favorite was called “The Bennington:” a big farmhouse with a sort of rounded roof like a barn, and a covered front porch with hanging baskets of flowers.

“No, that’s too big,” Dad said. “And I don’t like the gambrel roof.”

I was disappointed, but continued to study the books, fascinated. I wondered if I could get a job drawing floor plans someday.

Once, someone told Dad about a log home company that was way up north, near Canada. He and Mom seemed excited to tour their “display models” and look at all their different floor plans. We drove for hours one cold day, but instead of finding display models, we arrived at a rambling log building that looked more like a plain garage than a cabin.

It was like a big open warehouse, with displays of windows and roofing and different shapes of building logs. Huge color photos throughout the vast building showed off massive log mansions on manicured lawns—so unlike our weedy lawn back home—or modernistic chalets with glass that covered an entire wall of the house. An eager salesman led us over to some big, thick catalogs that displayed his company's wares, and he pointed out the all the features of the fancy log homes.

I could tell that my parents were disappointed. “This isn’t exactly what we have in mind,” Mom said politely to the salesman, who looked baffled by their disinterest.

“We’re looking for something small, and rustic,” said Dad. All the way home, he grumbled that he had driven us all the way up to the Canadian border for nothing.

That spring, they finally found the perfect house at the New England Log Homes company in Lake George. Mom and Dad looked impressed as we toured the model house. There were colorful flowers on the front porch, and old fashioned multi-paned windows. The log walls had been what they called “skip-peeled,” with some of the bark still attached. It looked like an old-time cabin with a covered porch, and upstairs bedrooms with sloping ceilings.

I waited in the car as Mom and Dad signed some papers and bought a new log cabin kit.

When fourth grade finally let out for the summer, I lived for the weekends when we left the suburbs. The yellow truck carried our picnic lunches and a cooler of drinks, my nets and buckets and plastic dinosaurs, Dad’s tools and lumber and Mom’s romance novels, and whatever else my parents had brought to keep themselves occupied.

I felt just like my heroes, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. They were two long-dead men whom I knew nothing about, except that they wore animal skins and furry hats and lived in the wilderness. I wore jeans and a puffy gray vest instead of a buckskin suit, but on my head I wore my prized possession: a fake-fur coonskin cap with a real raccoon tail that hung down the back. I had found it for sale in the souvenir shop the time we went to Magic Forest amusement park in Old Forge, and I begged Mom to buy it for me. I think she regretted that. I wore it when I caught frogs in the swamp. I wore it when I played on the jungle gym. I even wore it to bed. If Mom hadn’t stopped me, I would’ve worn it to school. For some reason, she didn’t want me to wear it in public, and always suggested that I leave it at home “so it wouldn’t get lost.”

Those woods became mine during that summer of 1987. As Mom and Dad laid out stakes where the house would be built, I explored the woods in my muddy workboots and mountain-man clothes. Davy and Daniel would’ve been proud of me. I discovered a brook that contained some strange salamander-like creatures that I’d never seen before. In a small clearing closer to the house, I lay on the stream’s grassy bank and studied the water bugs skating on the surface. There, I built a wobbly footbridge out of some scrap lumber that I filched from Dad’s pile. In the slippery black muck beside the stream, I often found the long-fingered tracks of raccoons, so clear that I could see the marks of their claws.

Further downstream, closer to where it ran under the road, I discovered the huge root of a fallen tree sticking straight up in the air. Clods of dried mud still dangled from the root, which loomed high above me, and I pretended that it was my cabin by a river.

Further up the logging road, I found an old outhouse on the border of our land. It had no door, but was still strong, built of weathered gray boards and a green fiberglass roof that allowed spooky emerald light to enter. Dad figured that it must’ve been there since the days when the land had been logged, but now it was nearly overtaken by the saplings and blackberry bushes that had grown up around it.

That land became my own ten-acre wilderness, and I never wanted to leave.


Chapter 7. SALLY

My daydreaming ended when Dad bought me my first horse the winter of 1990. I was twelve then, and the horse an uncertain age; some people guessed 17, while others figured she was more like 25. She was still a beauty, though: a retired Standardbred pacer whose racing name had been “Sally de Baron.”

I had always kept a running list of names for my future horse, like the way an expectant mother would pore over books of baby names. I had finally settled on “Wildsun,” the most exciting name I'd ever heard! But Wildsun didn't fit my quiet new horse, so Sally's plain but suitable name remained unchanged.

Although we only made just a few painfully short weekend visits to the farm where she stayed, Dad spent the winter enlarging the goats' pen into a proper corral. Sally finally came home on a rainy Easter weekend three months later.

However, those winter visits were not the first time that we’d met. I first saw Sally one August day the year before. Dad took me to his co-worker’s farm to buy two pet mallard ducklings, and I spotted a shiny bay mare grazing in the field behind the big old farmhouse.

I still think of that as one of the happiest days of my life, when the horse’s owner asked if I’d like to ride…of course, yes…and she rummaged around the dilapidated barn for a saddle and bridle. She couldn’t find the tack and I had never ridden bareback, but I didn’t care. The horse, which hadn’t been ridden in a while, took off trotting across the field as I clung to her tangled mane, telling her to “whoa.” I bounced around on her bony back, struggling not to fall off in front of Dad and his co-worker.

Soon the horse settled down and walked calmly under the hot sun. I relaxed and loosened my grip on her mane.

“She’s a natural,” I overheard Dad say. He sounded proud.

“And Sally seems to like her,” said the lady. “I got her off the track a while ago, but my kids aren’t interested in her anymore. I’d like to find her a good home…”

They continued to talk as they watched us circle the field, and I didn’t want the ride to end. But as I reluctantly slid off her back a few minutes later, I had a feeling that she and I would someday be together forever.

On the way home I stroked my new pets, the two fuzzy ducklings that I named Squeak and Quack. They were cute, but riding Sally had been the most special part of the day, a day that I knew I’d never forget.

****

From my diary:

Wednesday, January 10th, 1990

…Somehow on the way home, Dad and I got to discussing horses and he told me that Sally’s owner might git (sic) red (sic) of her. Dad said he made an offer to buy her but he didn’t tell me what she said. I have a mystry (sic) to solve. Am I getting a horse or not?


Sunday, January 14th, 1990

I have solved the mystery! I am getting a horse! Sally is a 17- year-old Standardbred off the Saratoga Harness Track. She is bay and is 15 hands. I am getting her for 250 dollars including the horse and the saddle and bridle. Sometime next weekend I will go out to ride and groom her. She is a fun horse to ride even though she is old. Further reports will follow in later entries.


Saturday, January 20th, 1990

Today I got my new glasses. Then we went to the farm. Sally’s coat was long and it was cacked (sic) with dry mud that I very easly (sic) got out. Her forelock was full of burrs and I got almost all of them out. I picked her hooves. Her tail was incredably (sic) matted with burrs and Dad got most all of them out. I rode her a lot all bareback but she had a snaffel (sic) bridle so I used that for all the other rides that I took on her…


On Sally's homecoming day, I stood beside her in the new backyard corral, so eager to go to work on her with my new grooming tools that I was oblivious to the damp spring drizzle. I was so happy that my dream had come true that I didn’t notice that she looked rather…ordinary. The fine, downy fluff of her forelock puffed up over her forehead, unlike the rest of her mane, which lay straight and smooth against her neck. Her dull brown fur hung down in shaggy tufts, while burrs once again matted her long mane and tail. Her nose bore a scarred bump from an old paddock injury. But after a few hours with my shedding blade, her old winter fur fell to the ground in greasy sheets. The slick red coat that I remembered from the summer before reappeared like magic under my brush. I combed her mane and picked the burrs from her tail, and she once again resembled the sleek racehorse of her younger days.

I could hardly concentrate on my schoolwork, and I spent all of my free time riding and brushing my new horse. I just couldn’t get enough.

After the last day of school that June, I looked out my window at the sun-dappled woods, filled with anticipation of the coming months. That was the beginning of a wonderful summer.

Dad usually stayed home during the day while Mom worked, since he had a night shift. He slept most of the day, though, so I amused myself on my own. I spent the days with Sally, riding up in a little clearing where Dad had first wanted to build the house. Trotting in circles got to be boring after a while, though. My parents had warned me not to take her into the woods, but the shady logging roads looked so much more inviting than the sun-baked rocky ring that Sally had trampled in the clearing.

Trail riding was fun. Sally’s hooves soon wore a narrow path on the dead-end logging road that led past the old outhouse. It was our secret.

On a humid day when the leaves hung motionless in their anticipation of the coming rain, Sally broke into a canter with me on her back. At riding lessons, I had been terrified when my horse cantered. Candy did it often, and I would drop the reins and scream, afraid she was running away with me. Although I loved the horses, I didn’t get very far in those lessons.

This time was different, though. It was a new feeling, but nothing scary. Sally swung forward and back as easy as a rocking horse, and I didn’t bounce like I did at a trot. Is this what I had been so afraid of? I thought as I sat back and enjoyed the new experience.

After a thrilling first canter to the end of the trail, we turned around and headed back to the clearing. I stopped short when I spotted Dad glaring at us as he watched us emerge from the woods.

“What were you doing in the woods?” he barked. “Your mother and I told you to keep the horse in the clearing! I thought I saw hoofprints back there the other day.”

I mumbled something and dismounted.

“I came up here to tell you that you need to get back to the house. A storm is coming.”

I thought I was in big trouble as I unsaddled Sally and turned her loose in the corral. As Dad had predicted, it began thundering when I went back in the house, the rain soon dripping from the drooping summer leaves and soaking the dirt backyard.

I found Dad waiting for me at the table and expected a lecture, but despite his grumpy expression, he wasn't too angry. In fact, I was surprised when he told me that he couldn’t blame me for wanting to do more than ride in circles. And then he gave me his grudging permission to continue riding in the woods.

Then the fun really started, since I no longer had to sneak around and worry about being caught. I often abandoned Sally’s decrepit old western saddle with the torn leather that flapped over the saddle horn. Instead, I cantered bareback down our narrow trail without holding the reins or her mane, my arms outstretched, as the soft leaves of the beech saplings brushed my hands. I trusted her, and she never failed me.

Nobody in the “Dude Ranch Country” of Hadley/Luzerne rode English, the way everyone in Saratoga did, so I was on my own when I taught Sally (and myself) to jump. I made an obstacle out of a piece of lumber and two buckets, trotted up to it, grabbed the saddle horn, and hoped for the best. Sally balked, or I fell off, more often than we jumped successfully, but when it finally came together, it was a lot of fun. So what if our form would never have won us a ribbon in any horse show?

As the summer passed, we began exploring farther away from home. Sally had no fear of the passing vehicles as she cantered up the sandy shoulder of the road, the breeze rustling the grass and tiger lilies in the ditch. Even as the logging trucks rumbled beside us, gears squealing and chains clanking and swaying, Sally never shied. She continued to move beneath me, her faithful power and docility packed into her lean frame.

Although Sally was never aggressive, I learned that she did have her quirks. With no warning, she often spun around and bolted back home at a full racing pace, almost as fast as an ordinary horse could gallop. We got into battles that sometimes carried us into the middle of the road, until she’d continue in the direction that I wanted to go. Other times she would spook at things she'd already seen before, like a boulder in the woods, or the neighbor’s cows up the road.

The cows’ rocky pasture lay across the road from a rambling old white farmhouse and barn, set back in rolling hay fields. As my bus passed the farm every day on the way to school, I thought that it looked like the perfect place to ride a horse. So I did. I rode past the farm, then turned onto a dirt trail that wound through a field of juniper bushes and opened into the farm’s back meadow. Two Belgian draft horses dozed in their shady corral nearby, hardly glancing at us as we passed.

One day, the owner saw me and I thought he'd yell at me for trespassing, but he only waved and continued what he was doing. After that, the farm fields became a favorite place to ride, and I did nearly every day.

On my birthday, Mom and Dad surprised me with a beautiful new saddle, with flowers carved into its shiny black leather and silver conchos with long leather strings to attach saddlebags or a bedroll. I broke it in by riding the three-and-a-half miles to the Hadley General Store for an ice cream bar. My route, Stony Creek Road, was a good place for a horseback ride, with its long sunny straightaways bordering the abandoned railroad tracks.

It was a time that I thought would always last. However, changes were coming that would affect the both of us.






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